ST. CATHERINES ISLAND, Ga.-- Savannah Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer
spent Columbus Day visiting the oldest church in the diocese for the
first time since he was ordained to head the diocese two years ago.
Santa Catalina de Guale mission, located on St. Catherines Island, an
undeveloped barrier island 35 miles south of Savannah, is a 16th-century
Spanish mission rediscovered by archaeologist David Hurst Thomas only
32 years ago.
"This (St. Catherines) is one of the most important Spanish colonial
sites in the U.S. It needs to be preserved. Our position is that it goes
far beyond St. Catherines. It's a Georgia thing, and a U.S. thing and I
think a Catholic Church thing--something needs to be done," said
In the late 1500s, Franciscan missionaries, followers of St. Francis,
like Bishop Hartmayer, who is a Conventual Franciscan, came from Spain
by way of Cuba to introduce Christianity to American Indians.
It was only in 1981 that Thomas, curator with the American Museum of
Natural History in New York, discovered the mission site after five
years of excavations. The first call he made was to then-Savannah Bishop
Raymond W. Lessard, saying, "I think I found something that belongs to
The connection between the archaeologist and the bishop led to a
reconsecration service conducted by Bishop Lessard in 1984 when the
skeletons of two Indians were reburied at the mission site. Eventually
the remains of 432 American Indians that had been excavated and studied
in laboratories around the U.S. were returned to the site and
On Oct. 14, Bishop Hartmayer paid a visit to the island, accompanied by
three Missionary Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception -- Sisters
Julie Franchi, Pauline O'Brien and Georgette Cunniff -- and other
diocesan staff. He celebrated Mass at the mission site, now a grassy
berm outlined by palm trees.
Thomas, currently overseeing another excavation on the island, told the
group that after the original discovery excavations continued for 15
years into the 1990s until he decided to walk away from the island and
preserve the site for future research.
Nature, however, has compelled him and his students to begin digging
again in recent years. Erosion at the mission site is proceeding at a
rapid rate. The prediction is that the site will disappear in the next
century, taking with it valuable clues to history.
At the same time, the St. Catherines Island Foundation, which owns the
island, is trying to determine how best to stop the erosion.
For Bishop Hartmayer, the trip had a twofold purpose. He wanted to see
the mission site where fellow Franciscans first brought Christianity to
the New World. As bishop of Savannah, he is now in charge of advancing
the sainthood cause of the Georgia martyrs, five Spanish friars who were
murdered by American Indians in 1597. Two of them met their deaths on
St. Catherines, two near present-day Darien and a fifth on St. Simons
In March 2007, Conventual Franciscan Father Conrad Harkins, then vice
postulator of the martyrs' cause, took 500 pages of documents supporting
the case for their canonization to the Vatican.
Thomas, who has spent more than 40 years excavating in the Southwest and
Southeast, said the more he studies the missions, the more he becomes
fascinated by the contrast between the missions in the Southwest and
those in the Southeast. He has come to think of the Franciscan
missionaries at St. Catherines as 16th-century "Peace Corps members."
"Basically there was an alliance between the church and the Indians that
preserved the Indian culture," he said. Instead of forcing religion on
the American Indians, the Franciscans brokered an agreement with them
that kept the Indians' way of life while incorporating the teachings of
"There is no way that two barefoot friars could have stood up to 300
armed warriors," had the Franciscans chosen a confrontational approach,
Thomas told the Southern Cross, Savannah's diocesan newspaper.
The narrative about the killing of the priests, first written in 1619,
has maintained that the friars were slain because they protested the
fact that an Indian leader wanted to take more than one wife.
Thomas believes there was more to the story and that the five
Franciscans were victims of a conflict between warring Indian factions
fighting for power.
While the excavations continue to piece together more of the history, the race to try to stem erosion goes on.
Royce Hayes, St. Catherines Island superintendent, has the difficult
task of providing data to the St. Catherines Island Foundation Board in
November on the best and least expensive route to take to stop its
"We have to see what our options are, what the Corps of Engineers and conservation groups will allow," Thomas said.
The relationship between the archaeologist and the Catholic Church,
begun in the 1980s, also will continue. Thomas explained that because
there are no living descendants of the Guale Indians -- they became
extinct in the 1760s -- the Catholic Church is the cultural descendant
of the mission.
During his homily at Mass, Bishop Hartmayer said, "I am sure in the
encounter between the friars and the Native Americans they learned from
He linked the evangelization that the Georgia martyrs pursued with the
"new evangelization" that Popes Benedict and Francis have called
Catholics to embrace today. "For those who feel emptiness in their
lives, they will find they are fulfilled in Christ. They find a deeper
meaning beyond the here and now," he said.